Growing Witch Hazel Shrubs – How To Grow And Care For Witch Hazel
By: Susan Patterson, Master Gardener
The witch hazel bush (Hamamelis virginiana) is a small tree with fragrant yellow blooms that is a member of the Hamanelidacease family and closely related to the sweet gum. Although witch hazel has many common names, the generic name means “together with fruit,” which refers to the fact that this special tree is the only tree in North America to have flowers, ripe fruit, and next year’s leaf buds on its branches at the same time.
The witch hazel bush, found in woody areas, is often called water-witch as its branches were once used to search and find underground sources of water and minerals. Witch hazel is commonly used to treat insect bites, sunburn, and as a refreshing lotion for after shaving.
How to Grow Witch Hazel Shrubs
Witch hazel shrubs can reach 30 feet (9 m.) high and 15 feet (4.5 m.) wide at maturity and are often referred to as a tree due to this. The plant sets out pretty, yellow flowers that are fragrant and resemble dainty ribbons in the fall.
Growing witch hazel shrubs is a favorite amongst gardeners looking for winter color and fragrance. Many people plant witch hazel in a location where they can enjoy not only its beauty but also its sweet aroma.
Witch hazel shrubs are excellent as a border, mixed hedge, or even a specimen plant if given enough room to spread. Learning how to grow witch hazel is easy since they require very little care.
Witch Hazel Growing Requirements
This attractive bush thrives in USDA planting zones 3-9.
Witch hazel shrubs like moist soil but are adaptable. Even though they are considered an understory plant, they will thrive in part shade to full sun.
Care for witch hazel requires minimal time apart from regular water the first season and pruning only to shape as desired.
Witch hazel is not bothered by any serious pests or disease and will tolerate some browsing deer. Some homeowners, who have a lot of deer, put netting around the base of young shrubs to keep the deer from munching.
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Read more about Witch Hazel
Witch hazel, or Hamamelis, may be best known for its therapeutic properties. But, it’s also a star of the late winter garden. And right now in eastern North America, the shrub’s sweet, citrusy scent is drifting across many a landscape. For me, there’s nothing quite like the appearance of witch hazel’s fragrant, shaggy flowers to signal spring is finally on its way.
The planting of witch-hazel is preferably performed in fall to promote root development before winter.
For plants purchased in pots or containers, you can plant in other seasons than fall as long as both hot and cold spells are avoided.
- Witch-hazel loves the sun, especially in winter, but it abominates it if it is scorching hot in summer.
- Light shade in the afternoon in summer is ideal for this tree.
- If you shelter your witch-hazel from cold wind, you’ll be extending its blooming.
- Follow our advice on planting shrubs
Planting witch-hazel in pots
If you’re lucky to have a terrace that can welcome a large pot, you’ll be able to grow witch-hazel in a container, because its slow growth makes it a good candidate to growing in such spaces.
Note also that witch hazel is particularly hardy to the cold, and so growing it in pots is all the more possible.
- Ensure that you have proper drainage.
- Fill the pot in with good soil mix.
- Provide fertilizer once a year.
- Water in case of heat wave or prolonged dry spell because plants in pots need water more often.
Attractive Branches and Leaves
In the wild, Hamamelis virginiana is a common shrub of North America's eastern deciduous forest, ranging from Quebec east to Minnesota and south to Florida. Common woody compatriots include pines, oaks, hickories, maples, and blueberries. Where the forest is mature and undisturbed, witch-hazel can dominate the understory and is an easy plant to get to know during a casual walk in the woods.
Slow growing and multistemmed, this witch-hazel typically reaches heights of 15 to 20 feet, but in the southern Appalachians it has been documented at 30 feet tall. The shrub has a full, rounded crown and a graceful vase-shaped habit. Its bark—thin, smooth, and gray—is quite attractive and adds interest to the winter garden. In the shade of canopy trees, witch-hazel exhibits zigzag branching and may look as though it were roaming for light, which it is. In full sun, it has more compact growth but also shows signs of stress from the direct light. American witch-hazel's branching pattern and its leaves—which are held perpendicular to the sun—make it a good competitor for the limited light found in the understory.
The leaves themselves are decorative. Broadly oval with scalloped edges and inverted-V-shaped veining, they grow up to six inches long and mature from deep green to a rich golden color in fall. Scientists have speculated that the leaves are a food source for larvae of an endangered moth, Acronicta hamamelis. One definite leaf eater is the witch-hazel leaf gall aphid (Hormaphis hamamelidis). To house its eggs, this aphid chews through the leaf underside and secretes chemicals that lead to the formation of pyramidal galls. I like to think that these witch's-hat-like galls are what inspired the plant's common name, but the literature says otherwise. The "witch" is derived from wych, an Old English word referring to the plant's pliant branches (also the root word for "wicker"). "Hazel" comes from the perceived resemblance of witch-hazel leaves to those of Corylus (hazel) species.
Witch Hazel Toner
Witch hazel toner can also help to heal bruises, cuts, scrapes, insect bites, rashes, and other skin problems and can be added to many natural beauty recipes to give them healing properties. A spritz of witch hazel on your face when you get out of the shower acts as a natural toner. Spraying it on recently shaved skin helps to prevent ingrown hairs and bumps. Don’t even get me started about how great it feels to reduce the inflammation on rashes and sunburns!
I keep a bit of witch hazel toner in a small atomizer in my bathroom medicine cabinet to spray on my face after the shower, and my legs and underarms after shaving. It has a neutral pH of 5 so it’s wonderful as a toner as well as to calm down red and inflamed skin whether it’s from cuts, scrapes, blemishes, redness, or razor rash from shaving.
Witch hazel toner can be found online and in most natural grocery stores like Whole Foods. Just look on the shelves for a natural brand of witch hazel without alcohol and add it to your own atomizer. I use a witch hazel formula with rose added because rose tightens up pores and gives you the appearance of a fresh English Rose, but if you have acne or skin disorders on the face, then an aloe formulation may be more helpful.
Witch hazels are relatively problem-free additions to the landscape. There are a couple of insects associated with the witch hazel, but none are serious. There is a cone gall aphid (Hormaphis hamamelidis) that can cause unsightly galls on the leaves, but are usually not a significant problem. There is also a spiny leaf gall aphid (Hamamelistes spinosus), that can cause some unsightly spiny galls on the foliage.
The most prevalent disease associated with vernal witch hazel is powdery mildew, but is not a significant problem in most instances.
If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at [email protected] or 1-888-656-9988.
George M. Dickert, District Extension Director, Greenville, Clemson University
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